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Brain Res. 2013 May 20;1511:73-92. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2012.11.001. Epub 2012 Nov 8.

Optogenetic dissection of neural circuits underlying emotional valence and motivated behaviors.

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Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA.


The neural circuits underlying emotional valence and motivated behaviors are several synapses away from both defined sensory inputs and quantifiable motor outputs. Electrophysiology has provided us with a suitable means for observing neural activity during behavior, but methods for controlling activity for the purpose of studying motivated behaviors have been inadequate: electrical stimulation lacks cellular specificity and pharmacological manipulation lacks temporal resolution. The recent emergence of optogenetic tools provides a new means for establishing causal relationships between neural activity and behavior. Optogenetics, the use of genetically-encodable light-activated proteins, permits the modulation of specific neural circuit elements with millisecond precision. The ability to control individual cell types, and even projections between distal regions, allows us to investigate functional connectivity in a causal manner. The greatest consequence of controlling neural activity with finer precision has been the characterization of individual neural circuits within anatomical brain regions as defined functional units. Within the mesolimbic dopamine system, optogenetics has helped separate subsets of dopamine neurons with distinct functions for reward, aversion and salience processing, elucidated GABA neuronal effects on behavior, and characterized connectivity with forebrain and cortical structures. Within the striatum, optogenetics has confirmed the opposing relationship between direct and indirect pathway medium spiny neurons (MSNs), in addition to characterizing the inhibition of MSNs by cholinergic interneurons. Within the hypothalamus, optogenetics has helped overcome the heterogeneity in neuronal cell-type and revealed distinct circuits mediating aggression and feeding. Within the amygdala, optogenetics has allowed the study of intra-amygdala microcircuitry as well as interconnections with distal regions involved in fear and anxiety. In this review, we will present the body of optogenetic studies that has significantly enhanced our understanding of emotional valence and motivated behaviors. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled Optogenetics (7th BRES).

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